Analysis: On cloud nine with FP6?

November 22, 2002

The European Union's Sixth Framework Programme is packed full of big ideas financed by a mighty big budget. Martin Ince reports.

At a cost of €17.5 billion (£11.1 billion) between now and 2006, the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme for research is as big as the science budget of a medium-sized country. But it will be spent in a very different way from a nation-state's research funds and with far more explicit political intentions.

Everything about FP6 is big. It is 17 per cent larger than Framework Five. Its launch in Brussels last week brought in nearly 9,000 people, making it the biggest event ever organised by the European Commission. It is also a personal success for Philippe Busquin, the EU's research commissioner. During his period of office, research has turned into the commission's third biggest budget item after spending on agriculture and regional development. Mr Busquin, a former physics professor, has the knack, like UK science minister Lord Sainsbury, of being liked by scientists and by the decision-makers who control the cash.

His political vision sales pitch is the European Research Area, a term that has developed under Mr Busquin from a curiosity to a commonplace. The cash is buying the EU a "common market of knowledge" across the 15 member states and the candidate countries getting ready to join. If it works, people, ideas and initiatives will flow from place to place and enhance knowledge, economic development and European integration. There is plenty to excite scientists, politicians and bureaucrats.

The emphasis on the European Research Area means that "mobility", sending researchers across the EU for a day or many months, is a big winner in FP6. Its budget is up by 60 per cent from FP5. But Mr Busquin conceded that there were still powerful forces working against a European labour market for researchers. He told The THES : "In France and Germany, most researchers are employed by major research organisations, such as the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in France and the Max Planck Society in Germany, which do not exist in Britain. There, most researchers work in universities." But Mr Busquin argued that the European Research Area "starts from reality in each state". Every country has its own social security system, pension schemes and employment laws, which will not disappear.

According to Jimmy Jamar, head of employment issues at the research directorate general, "Research ministries often have little political power when it comes to changing national systems. All we can do is to raise awareness." Universities are part of the problem. They are funded within national education systems with their own ways of recruiting and employing staff. Mr Jamar said he was keen on having a single "scientific visa", such as the one pioneered in France, to allow non-EU scientists to work anywhere in Europe.

He also pointed to the importance of information and praised the French town of Montpellier, where several research institutions have set up a website telling newcomers how to find somewhere to live, how to get their children into schools and where to find language lessons.

One of the main aims of the FP6 is to build up an active European sector of technology-oriented small and medium-sized companies. FP6 contains money to put academics into such companies and to send people from smaller firms into universities. The aim is to build a buzz of interactions between companies and researchers that will produce new jobs and industries. But doing this will mean more research spending. Framework money makes up only 6 per cent of research spending in the EU, which means that it is up to governments and industry to find cash from their own pockets.

The EU's plan is for research spending to rise to 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2010, but there is every chance that this is one ambition of Mr Busquin's that will fail to bear fruit. Only Finland and Sweden are there, with the UK on 1.9 per cent, close to the average for the 15 member states. Among the 13 candidate nations, only the Czech Republic manages 1 per cent. By contrast, the US and Japan are close to 3 per cent. Unice, the European lobby group for business, likes the target but wants hefty tax breaks and grants as industry's price for spending more. Mr Busquin is likely to push for it to get what it wants. He pointed out that only half of the EU's research spending came from business, compared with 70 per cent in the US and 80 per cent in Japan.

FP6 has been built with the intention of creating a more equal and acceptable European science, in contrast to what Mr Busquin called the "blind science" of the past. There is more money for work on science and society issues, in the hope of avoiding noisy debates on issues such as genetic manipulation.

There is also stress on increasing the number of women in European science. In Germany, only about 6 per cent of full professors are women, by no means an isolated example. Mary Osborn, a British cancer researcher based in Germany and a senior EU adviser on women in science, said that although there were still huge issues to be faced, there had been a rise in the number of women at senior levels in the EU science machine itself. She pointed out that the European Research Advisory Board, its main consultative body, counted 15 women among its 45 members, a vast improvement on past form. It is chaired by Helga Nowotny from Zurich. By contrast, the Australian delegation to the FP6 launch consisted of 28 men and no women.

Alexandre Quintanilha, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology in Porto, Portugal, said that the issues raised by the Framework Programme were topical in an era when national and ethnic pressures were increasing across Europe. He said: "Research stimulates internationality in an era of identity assertion and is going to become more important." In his research, the problem of patient confidentiality arises in every country in the same way. Mr Busquin agreed that the issues had ceased to be national. "At one time," he said, "countries would guard research at a national level because it was part of their economic competitiveness. Now science has gone global and this no longer applies. We are always keen for European scientists to work around the world. But it is important for Europe to be stronger in the world. This means building up critical mass in Europe, especially to allow European researchers to be in contact more effectively."

One of Mr Busquin's big ideas, the European Research Council, is taking a back seat because of the reluctance of member nations to hand a chunk of their research cash to an unknown body that would be under no obligation to spend it in a particular country. It was intended as a high-level body funding a small amount of elite work far from the application stage. But commission officials said they hoped that resistance to the idea would fall as FP6 proceeded. The council has an immense number of specific research objectives, from Parkinson's disease to surface transport, all chosen for their importance across the EU. There is a special emphasis on nanotechnology. Here the commission is determined to keep the EU alongside the US. If these plans succeed, the idea of Europe-scale decision-taking on research will gain in authority.

But not all FP6 spending will go on such intangible ambitions. A large slice of the money will be used to build the infrastructure of the EU's planned continent-wide knowledge economy. FP5 cash was used to build the Geant data network, joining most of Europe's main centres with a 10 gigabyte per second link, four times the speed of Internet 2 in the US.

Simon Garrington, a radio astronomer at Manchester University's Jodrell Bank Observatory, said the grid was replacing the tapes used to gather data from radio telescopes. The capacity available means that Geant can carry the whole signal collected by radio telescope, unlike tapes, which record only 2 per cent of the incoming data from space.

Genome science, optical astronomy, particle physics, satellite observation of the Earth and neuroscience will be among the other beneficiaries. Geant and the DataGrid will be expanded further under FP6. Spending will be about €600 million, with half coming from the commission.

"A doctor with a patient with an unusual brain scan will be able to search the whole of Europe for any similar image and find out what the doctors in that case thought," he said. Busquin heaven indeed.

EU PRIORITY RESEARCH AREAS

  • Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology: €2.2 billion

  • Information society technologies: €3.6 billion

  • Nanotechnologies, multifunctional materials and new production processes: €1.3 billion

  • Aeronautics and space: €1.1 billion

  • Food quality and safety: €685 million

  • Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems: €2.1 billion

  • Citizens and governance: €225 million

  • Activities in a wider field of research: €1.3 billion

  • In addition: €555 million has been earmarked for research to support EU policies; €430 million has been dedicated to small and medium-sized enterprises; and €315 million will support international scientific cooperation

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